Wednesday, November 22, 2006

23. British director Peter Glenville's US film "The Comedians" (1967): Relevant today as ever

While many viewers might have forgotten this film, the relevance of the subject of expatriates living in countries ruled by dictators and the recognizable traits of the four major characters in many persons we encounter in life make me recall this movie again and again. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, and Peter Ustinov are a heady combination but I will not remember the film for any one of their "acting" capabilities as much as the four wonderful main characters woven by Graham Greene and Peter Glenville. There is almost an unrecognizable James Earl Jones whose fabulous voice is overshadowed in this film by those of Burton and the suave Guinness. "I have no faith in faith," rants Brown (Burton) the anti-hero of the film--a typical Greene character (compare with Greene's 'The Burnt-out case'). Cynicism is turned into comedy. The splashes of Catholic motifs made in passing reference ("defrocked priest") hark back to Burton's earlier role in The Night of the Iguana. Guinness' reference to looking like a Lawrence of Arabia recalls his own role as Prince Faisal in Lean's movie. Not having read Greene's book, I am not sure whether Greene introduced these clever details into the script to suit the actors or whether the details had previously existed in the book. The gradual unmasking of the Major (Guinness) is a treat creatively captured by Glenville and Greene. The final speech made by Burton to his group of ragged rebels seem to have a common "comic" thread with George Clooney's speech to his soldiers towards the end of the recent Mallick's The Thin Red Line. Ustinov's diplomat and Taylor's vulnerable diplomat's wife, who admits to her lover that he is the fourth "adventure," are both comedians--Greene's likable misfits who cannot change their destiny and are strangely reconciled to accept their inevitable end. All the four main characters are "prepared" for their destiny they have designed for themselves as a consequence of previous actions in life. The closing shot of the film is a shot of a suggestive blue sky, redeeming the foibles of the comedians on terra firma. I admit that when I saw the film some 20 years ago, I did not appreciate the film as I do now. I was missing the forest for the trees. This film does not belong to Burton, Taylor, Guinness, Ustinov, Jones or Lillian Gish. It belongs to Greene, Glenville and the French cinematographer Henri Decae. I do not imply that Burton was not good--but George C. Scott said one should evaluate a performance by remembering the character more than the actor. It is in that context that I remember the four main characters. Burton's kisses are different here than say in Boom or Cleopatra--only to add detail to the character. Taylor is strangely subdued only to add power to her smoldering role. Guinness' gradual unmasking is pathetic yet endearing only to add more substance to the character. Decae's camera captures details that shocks--e.g., empty drawers in desks to collect bribes, public executions of rebels watched by school kids... I am not surprised the film was a box-office failure. I am surprised that this film, to my limited knowledge, has never been taken seriously for what it offers--a superb script, commendable acting, good direction, and some fine camerawork. These are the bricks that build great cinema!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

22."Queimada (Burn!)" (1969): Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's powerful political film with Marlon Brando

Queimada is a film I grew up with. I saw it for the first time in a movie theater in Kolkota, India, a year after it was made. It's a film with one of the finest scores of Ennio Morricone and an ambiguous performance by Marlon Brando--that makes you wonder if the William Walker role is merely to be viewed as that of a mercenary. In my view, this is Brando's best performance. Recently, I found out that Brando himself stated this performance was "the best acting I've ever did" during a Larry King interview on CNN. It appears that his explanation on why he considered this was cut short by King, who evidently knew little about the film or the filmmaker. And so we will never know why Brando thought this was his best performance. But I think I can guess the reasons.

I have watched Queimada several times and loved Gillo Pontecorvo's direction of the scenes at the port, which are one of my favorite sequences in cinema. Pontecorvo wanted Brando to create an evil figure of "Sir" William Walker, who was a real person though not a British knight. He was an American mercenary who even went to Indo-China. Brando apparently argued with Pontecorvo that the character instead of a clear-cut evil figure should be more ambiguous and this led to major differences between the two. On viewing the film, it is evident Brando won the argument.

Franco Solinas, the screenplay writer, was a brilliant Leftist who contributed to Pontecorvo's success on Battle of Algiers and Kapo. However, their films rankled the far Left and the far Right. Quiemada's script upset the Spanish government, and the filmmakers changed the details from a Spanish colony to a Portuguese colony. But Brando who probably was aware of the American connection of the lead character must have enjoyed the parallels of the story--knowing his personal love for the native Indian cause.

The film is a witty, cynical portrayal of colonial designs on impoverished poor. Sugar was the commodity in vogue then. A century later you could replace "sugar" with "oil." The film is replete with a brilliant speech penned by Solinas, spoken by Brando that begins by comparing the economics of having a wife versus a prostitute. He then ends the speech comparing the gains of a slave with that of hired labor. The political philosophy is unorthodox but hard hitting.

The visual effect of Brando's blonde hair and white clothes against the black natives is a visual metaphor. It is perhaps the most anti-racist movie that I have seen with William Walker in all his glory unable to comprehend the political conviction and values of a native worker who refuses a chance to escape a cruel execution.

This film has a small but significant role for Italian actor Renato Salvatori. The assassination sequence with Brando and Salvatori says a lot more than what it shows. The politics of the action is more important than the event itself. If you reflect on this scene, many real life assassinations take on deeper meaning.

I have seen hundreds of political movies--but this will remain my all time favorite. The film won Pontecorvo in 1970 the best director national award in Italy. The mix of Brando, Pontecorvo, Solinas, Salvatori and Morricone is a heady cocktail that will be a great experience for any intelligent viewer.

P.S. Queimada is one the author's top 100 films.

Monday, November 06, 2006

21. US director John Ford's "7 Women" (1966): a great swansong with a twist at the end

Ann Bancroft in one of her finest roles

I wonder what feminists feel about this film. In my view, this is a fascinating look at women by a male director, an effort that can compare with two other works: Paul Mazursky's The Unmarried Woman and Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan. In 7 women, strong women, weak women, lesbians, and immature girls, are contrasted with cardboard male characters that are never fully developed and are obviously no match to the array of women portrayed in the film. The men are painted so negatively that one begins to wonder if Ford thought Asian men had more brawn than brain--a strange view that has gained currency in Hollywood cinema.

I applaud Ford's decision to cast Anne Bancroft in the leading role. This is one of her strong performances. She makes even the most vapid films look elegant with her roles (Lipstick, Little Nikita, to name just two). Ford develops her role on the lines of a Western gunslinger--only there are no gunfights. The woman has a weapon: sex. That weapon can down all the bad guys faster than it takes to down Mexicans, Red Indians, rustlers, bankrobbers, et al. In 7 Women these bad men are Chinese/ Mongolian thugs. Established actresses Dame Flora Robson and Margaret Leighton are totally eclipsed by Bancroft's rivetting role.

The decision

What Ford wanted, I guess, was to stun the viewer with the ending--the twist to the gradual softening of the Bancroft in men's clothes to the Bancroft in women's clothes and the acceptance of male superiority. Most critics have found the end facile but I found the end powerful as it makes you review and reconsider all the preceding information on the lead character.

The film poster connects religion and the film

The film questions the commonly held views on religion; evidently Ford was old enough to have seen enough to choose to make this film in the evening of his life. In his films, Ford's women are as interesting as any other aspect of his cinema and this film provides ample fodder for those interested in studying that element of Ford's cinema.

However, for a 1966 film, the studio sets for the film look too artificial for the serious cinema that the film offers. Despite all the flaws, the film provides ample scope for reflection.